This week we celebrated Canada’s 153rd
birthday. One hundred and fifty-three is even older than I am, but still young enough to learn and improve.
It wasn’t much of a birthday for Canada this year. Not only did Canada Day fall on a Wednesday, so there was no Canada Day long weekend, it rained through much of the province, there were social distancing regulations because of the pandemic, and people were urged to acquire the fireworks app as the closest and next best thing to real fireworks.
also kicks off Black, Indigenous People, and People of Colour ("BIPOC") Mental Health Month
in the US, and because of the importance of these issues, Assist is adopting this campaign.
For most of my life, I viewed racism as an American issue—they had the history of slavery and the multi-generational post-slavery trauma, and we had…. language issues with Quebec. I know which one I thought was worse.
But this strange COVID-19 spring has led to a collective consciousness-raising about systemic racism. Many of us have been on a steep learning curve. First, we are acknowledging our own history of racism and multi-generational trauma inflicted on Canada’s Indigenous people and especially the damage caused by residential schools. Perhaps because the Truth and Reconciliation process has made it impossible for us to deny our own racist history, we are ready to look at the many other ways that racism manifests itself in Canada.
I am going to repeat the message that I circulated a few weeks ago—Assist is here for anyone in our legal community (lawyers, articling students, law students and family members) who has experienced racism and discrimination. We have Peer Support volunteers who can share their experiences and provide personal support and we have access to top-notch professional counsellors. Please call us if you would like support.
Assist has a big tent. We are here for everyone, so that includes people of my generation who grew up believing that it wasn’t racist to say positive but stereotyped things about a minority group, people who have inadvertently done or said racist things, and people who are shocked to be confronted with allegations that they have engaged in racist or discriminatory behaviour.
This week, I read an article in Above the Law about a Harvard Law School Instagram account
where students at that elite law school post about racist behaviour in those hallowed halls.
I heard a similar story about a student of colour in Alberta who attended a recruitment event and was standing with another student. A senior partner approached them and greeted the other student, reading her name off her name tag. He looked at the law student of colour and said something along the lines of, “you know you will never get hired by anybody. I can’t even figure out how to pronounce your name.”
We are a profession which values traditions and which is not always keen on change. I remember a senior partner in my own early law firm days saying that he would never hire a graduate of the University of Calgary law school because it just wasn’t as good as the more traditional schools and that nothing was going to convince him that it was. He was powerless, however, to stop the movement within both the firm and other firms to hire bright law graduates and to discover that bright U of C law graduates were every bit as good as graduates from older schools. Change happens.
We may not always be used to sounding out names from nametags that are unfamiliar to us, but both good manners and common sense would dictate that when we find ourselves in that type of a situation, we can hold out our hand (or do a COVID-friendly gesture in lieu), introduce ourselves and say something along the lines of “would you please help me to pronounce your name properly because it is important to me that I say your name correctly?”
The arrival in Canada of the first European explorers provides a great object lesson to explain where Canada is relative to racial and cultural issues. When I was in school, we were taught that the first European to land on Canada’s shores was John Cabot who arrived in what is now Atlantic Canada in 1497. When I later encountered the information that Jean Chabot had been the first European to arrive in Canada, I was confused. Applying the Canadian “two solitudes” lens (the old approach that Canadian events are generally viewed relative to the English-French dichotomy), I assumed that this was an ongoing battle about whose explorer arrived first, the French or the English—sounds like Canadian history in a nutshell.
But then I learned that John Cabot and Jean Chabot were the same person, and that there was both an Anglicized version of his name and a French version, depending on what you were reading.
Like Canadian history, it then gets more complicated and nuanced. The first European who landed on what is now Canadian soil was actually Italian, Giovanni Caboto, but his voyage had been commissioned by King Henry VII of England and there was a dominant European custom to “nativize” the names of foreign individuals, so when Giovanni Caboto was in England, he was John Cabot, and when he crossed the Channel, he was Jean Chabot.
Even more strange, it turns out that he was actually born in Venice, and his birth name was Zuan Chabotto (and there are documents signed by him in that name) but Italians generally call him the more conventionally-Italian name of Giovanni Caboto.
As Canadians, we have been arrogant like the Europeans in the 15th
century in renaming foreigners with names that reflect our own culture, except that instead of just assigning people names that reflect our culture, we have imbued members of visible minorities with Canadian cultural identities that may suppress their own identities.
Because I have an unusual spelling of my name (the vast majority of Lorraines have 2 Rs, like the region in France where the name originates), I have learned to tell people that I really don’t care how they spell my name and I apologize for my unusual spelling. I can only imagine how incredibly difficult and wearing it must be for racialized people to say that they don’t mind that other Canadians don’t get their culture and to have to apologize for the ways that they are different.
So with our recently celebrated Canada Day and the quasi-long weekend that some of us may have, let’s think about Zuan, who was called Giovanni by other Italians, Jean by the French and John by the British, and all of the racialized members of our community whose names aren’t familiar to us, or who look different or come from a different culture. We celebrate Canada Day with you and just ask that you bear with us as we try to be better.
And as we observe BIPOC Mental Health Month, let’s improve our awareness about how racial discrimination and systemic racism impact mental health of racialized people in Canada. Working towards eliminating racism and preventing negative mental health outcomes for all people is the greatest birthday present we can give to Canada!